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San Elijo Vine & Tap Is the Neighborhood Restaurant and Bar Every Community Deserves

Owner Chris Wood's chance opportunity to ditch the dish pit and work the front of house as a server proved pivotal in rewriting his own narrative
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By Ligaya Malones

San Elijo Vine and Tap - Chris Wood

San Elijo Vine & Tap owner Chris Wood in front of the restaurant’s boutique wine rack. About 75 percent of their wine list comprises small producers from California, New Zealand, Oregon, and Mexico.

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At first glance, San Elijo—a master-planned community tucked away in the San Marcos hills—appears like just another unassuming, manicured suburban area hemmed in by new construction and a 25 mph speed limit. But, slow down even further and suburbia has lessons to share. Take Chris Wood, owner of San Elijo Vine & Tap, and his unexpected path to entrepreneurship.

Wood considers himself an unlikely restaurant owner, yet here we are one uncharacteristically rainy afternoon at Vine & Tap’s expansive communal table, a pause between Wood’s inventory duties and his quest to secure a new oven. We sip Sonoma-Cutrer rosé (well, just me) and unspool the series of events that have—inadvertently—helped Wood fashion the kind of intimate and inviting neighborhood gathering place every community deserves.

From Dish Pit to Ownership

Back then the Escondido native was crunching numbers and staring at computer screens for a manufacturing company when, in 2012, he picked up a few shifts washing dishes at a new restaurant in fledgling San Elijo. It went by the name of Epoch at the time, and the gig would be Wood’s first (ideally only) foray into hospitality. Later, a chance opportunity to ditch the dish pit and work the front of house as a server proved pivotal in rewriting his own narrative, and eventually the restaurant’s.

“I used to be super shy, super quiet,” Wood recalls. “Our dishwasher is in the back, so I’d have to come out and polish glassware out front, so I slowly started to talk to people, and I think that’s when I busted out of my shell.”

He realized quickly, “Dang, I like this.”

Another opportunity revealed itself in 2017 when the restaurant’s previous owner put the place up for sale. Wood pooled resources from friends and family, secured an investor, “and just made it happen.” But how, exactly? In hindsight, timing and self-determination must’ve been the right formula.

“I had these weird pipe dreams of what I would do if I owned this place, but never in a million years did I think it would happen.” But it did, and one of the first dreams he realized was changing the restaurant’s name to San Elijo Vine & Tap.

San Elijo Vine and Tap - Grilled Veggie Tacos

Grilled veggie tacos with a pint. In addition to a rotating wine list, Vine & Tap offers 10 taps of local and regional craft beers, including from Carlsbad’s Burgeon Beer Company.

Clawing Back to Business After Pandemic Whiplash

Nearly five years later, Wood and his down-to-earth team who’ve stuck with him over the years are still here, which is not insignificant for a small, independent restaurant that’s just now clawing its way back from the whiplash of pandemic-related restrictions. Just as San Diegans fought to survive these last few years, so did small businesses like Vine & Tap.

And while Wood once described himself as reserved, perhaps the height of the pandemic was not a time to withdraw. In survival mode, sometimes creativity thrives. Summoning it might look like using personal funds to keep up with payroll, and workshopping solutions with neighboring restaurants like Shane’s Pizza and Pints, and Sets. Maybe creativity evolves into briefly operating as a socially distanced speakeasy of sorts during those flip-flopping colored-tier days, but only if one knew the right number to text or call, or happened to show up on the right day.

“We have a small crew, and we’re all friends with each other,” Wood says. “At the end of the day, I have 17 ‘children’ to look out for, and I couldn’t just hang them out to dry.”

Imagining the Future

And when the sun rises again in 2022, maybe your creativity pays off. Later this year, Wood and team plan to extend outdoor seating to wrap around the restaurant along San Elijo Road. They also plan to add signage to its side patio to make its existence obvious, although discovering that wedge of outdoor space on one’s own—its strung lights twinkling overhead, heat lamps blazing once it dips below 70—is part of Vine & Tap’s patchwork charm.

So is discovering its solid Taco Tuesday lineup, where those in the know arrive before 7:30 p.m. for birria tacos every first Tuesday of the month. Chef Dan makes his family recipe from Mexico, and El Nopalito in Encinitas supplies fresh tortillas and chips. And while Vine & Tap’s typical clientele consists of local regulars, guests traverse the county to make an appearance on Sundays because San Diegans can sniff out a weekend brunch from miles away. Just say “bottomless mimosas,” and the Instagram analytics don’t lie.

But truth is, after weathering a seemingly interminable chapter of uncertainty, Wood says they’re about to sign another five-year lease. This afternoon, wine glass now empty, it’s still a bit cloudy outside, but the rain has cleared.

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